Some critics argue journalists use the phrase “public interest” too liberally, as a convenient way to justify the publication of a contentious or sensitive story.
“I think the catch-all phrase of what is in the ‘public interest’ is something that is so non-defined and not prescriptive that it can essentially be wrapped around any incident,” says Chief Glenn De Caire of the Hamilton Police Service.
Even if a story is deemed to be in the public interest, that interest needs to be weighed against other considerations. Robbins says that in this case of a police suicide, issues of privacy also had to be factored into the discussion.
As Robbins asks, “Is there a greater public good that warrants the invasion — the intrusion — into the personal lives of the people who were players in the story?”
Clairmont felt the newsroom had an obligation to take into account the repercussions the story would have for the police officer’s family. She was unsure about whether the officer’s relatives were even aware of the death, and was hesitant about publishing the story for this reason as well. How would his family if they saw his name in print?
“In my mind there’s always a question about, ‘Has everyone been notified?’ I knew that his immediate family knew that he had died. But what about aunts, uncles, cousins — you know, distant family members or even friends who didn’t yet know? I think that reading about it in the paper is not how people ought to find out, although it does sometimes happen.”
Clairmont was not able to speak with the family, so she did not know how the family would have wanted the story told, if at all. “I did make attempts to contact the family that day,” she says, “but never connected with them.”
This was disconcerting for Clairmont. Privacy and the interests of the family were often at the top of her mind. “It always is when I’m writing about victims of crime, or families of victims of crime, or families of people who have taken their own lives. I always put victims first and foremost in my columns. I think I probably have a reputation for that. [It’s] something I feel very, very passionate about.”
For Robbins, the issue was more nuanced. “Here’s a simple truth of almost everything that journalists do: it invades someone’s privacy,” he says. “There’s almost no story that we publish that does not intrude on the private life of someone, in some description.”
Seen in this light, the question is not whether someone’s privacy is being invaded — it’s whether there is a justifiable reason for encroaching on someone’s private life. “That’s always a huge, huge balancing act for journalists — especially good, ethical, thoughtful journalists,” says Robbins. Esther Enkin, too, emphasizes that journalists should think carefully about the possible consequences of their reporting in order to minimize harm.
Watch Enkin share her perspective on the ethics of weighing privacy against public interest:
There was also uncertainty about whether the officer should be treated as a public figure or as a private citizen. If it had been a civilian who took his own life, would the suicide still have warranted media coverage?
As Clairmont puts it, “Should we be looking at this as just a guy, a man, who decided to end his life? Or is this about a police officer ending his life?”
The Hamilton Police Service feels that the death of an officer does not merit any more prominent media coverage than the death of any other person.
“Just because it is a police officer that dies by suicide doesn’t make it a public interest story. There are a lot of important occupations out there and we don’t report on their incidents of suicide,” says De Caire. “So I’m not convinced that the police holds any special standing, particularly on this issue, that requires any greater level of disclosure to the public.”
Watch Jim Poling outline the argument for respecting the officer’s privacy: